Every year, we wait to hear what the Treasurer announces in the annual Federal Budget, so that we can understand how the government anticipates the migration program will play out in the year ahead. This year, perhaps more than any other, we were keen to know what was in store for clients in the 2021/22 program year as Australia and the world come to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Budget is underpinned by some significant assumptions, the most important of which is that our international borders will not reopen before mid-2022. Given the way the pandemic has played out internationally and the slower than expected start to our vaccination rollout, this is not entirely surprising – indeed, when the international borders will reopen is anyone’s guess at this stage, as it is clear that the government will only consider reopening them when it is safe to do so. This means that travel exemptions, the PMSOL, COVID concessions and other adaptations to the program will remain firmly in place for at least the next 12 months.
The ongoing border closures have already had a massive impact on many sectors of the economy as well as Australia’s net overseas migration (the number of people coming into Australia for 12 months or more minus the number of people leaving Australia for more than 12 months), which is expected to fall from approximately 154,000 in 2019/20 to -77,000 in 2021/22. At this stage, the situation is only expected to return to normal in 2023/24, when numbers are predicted to rise to 201,000. Once again, this timetable is subject to change in line with the pandemic.
In terms of the program itself, notable observations are:
- Planning levels will be maintained at a ceiling of 160,000, with places in the Family Stream remaining at 77,300. Visas in the Skilled stream are set at 79,600 and the Humanitarian stream remains at 13,750.
- The program will have an overall emphasis on onshore applications, which is unsurprising, and is in line with Ministerial Directions and other initiatives introduced since the start of the pandemic.
- The program will continue to focus on ‘attracting the best and brightest migrants from around the world’. Of the 79,600 visas allocated to the Skilled stream, priority will be given to employer sponsored, Global Talent and Business Innovation and Investment Program visas, with the General Skilled Migration program taking a back seat. Rebuilding the economy is a key focus for the government, with business and innovation being seen to be instrumental to this process. Global Talent visas continue to take pride of place in the program, with $550 million to be allocated to attracting international talent and business via the Global Talent Taskforce. The ATO also plays a part in this plan, introducing an overhaul of the tax rules that apply to individuals.
- In line with the government’s concerns about family violence in the migration program, funding is being allocated towards ensuring the safety of migrant and refugee women on temporary visas, including funding to community legal centres who assist migrant and refugee women experiencing family violence. A new Temporary Visa Holders Payment Pilot to be administered by the Australian Red Cross is being established to provide financial support to eligible temporary visa holders who need essential services.
- International students are not expected to return to Australia for a while, with ‘small phased programs’ being gradually introduced so as to facilitate their return. This plan will depend in part on state and territory governments, and given the government’s proposed financial support to international education providers who have suffered economic loss as a result of the pandemic, all indications are that the return of international students is a much longer-term plan.
- Like last year, funds have been set aside to support the Administrative Appeals Tribunal – Migration and Refugee Division as it continues to deal with the backlog of review matters, and to recruit / appoint new judges to the Federal Circuit Court.
- The biggest cost-cutting measure in the budget is the major change to welfare payments, with the introduction of a 4-year waiting period for most welfare payments for people granted their permanent visas from 1 January 2022. This will obviously adversely affect many newly arrived migrants and is expected to save the government $671 million over 5 years.
- In direct contrast to the above, the government has allocated $464.7 million over two years towards enhancing the onshore immigration detention network, including the Christmas Island facility – perhaps a sign that the government expects to have a huge task on their hands in terms of returning unlawful non-citizens to their countries of origin.
There is no surprise that the government has continued to keep the focus on economic stream visas and reducing the partner visa pipeline. We welcome the additional funding dedicated to the AAT and the courts, as well as the steps being taken to recognise the unique position of migrant women who experience family violence. Unlike in previous budgets, however, regional Australia has not been a focus in this budget, which is perhaps a reflection of the bigger issues at play here in terms of Australia’s net overseas migration. There is also no indication of the usual annual increase to visa application charges.
The end result? Probably another year of uncertainty for both applicants and sponsors. For those offshore, the prospect of being able to travel to Australia looks like it will continue to be a challenge, at least in the near future. For those onshore, they continue to be separated from family and/or staff, and many will continue the frustrating wait for invitations to apply for skilled visas. Businesses will continue to come to terms with their limited ability to recruit international talent. We will continue to lose international students to other destinations like Canada and the United Kingdom. That being said, anyone who is a ‘global talent’, who has a priority occupation or a critical skill and those who have applied for an onshore partner visa are likely to benefit from faster processing times. Perhaps most than ever before, a considered immigration strategy is going to be critical.
Minister Hawke noted earlier this year that the government needed to be proactive and responsive in their adaptation of the migration program, and we have seen a number of legislative and policy changes in line with the evolution of the pandemic. It seems that this will continue to be the government’s challenge in the next financial year.
The Budget papers can be read here.